CBC Irked by Reid’s Handling of Burris

Posted January 12, 2009 at 6:21pm

Just when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) thought his Roland Burris headache was easing, he’s got to slog through a public relations hangover with Congressional Black Caucus members still stewing over his handling of the controversy.

But there were indications late Monday that the decision to award President-elect Barack Obama’s Senate seat to Burris would help ease tensions with the caucus — at least in the eyes of one of its members. Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), who in a Friday interview said Reid was “way off base” on the matter and needed to tell CBC members “that he was very wrong and that he had overstepped his authority,” reversed course Monday after the news broke.

“I am pleased that the stalemate has ended and the people of Illinois will have two Senators,” he said. “Let me take back what I said about Harry Reid.”

Whether Reid’s about-face on Burris would smooth relations with the rest of the 41-member bloc remains to be seen. Tempers were still running high late last week, even as Burris appeared to be on an easy path into the Senate.

It’s the latest in a series of aggravations for Reid, who should be enjoying his expanded majority in the opening days of the 111th Congress but instead continues to find himself embroiled in controversy.

The Nevada Democrat ruffled feathers in the group with his initially aggressive pushback against seating Burris. Equally upsetting, several CBC stalwarts said, was a recent report that Reid counseled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) — before his arrest and impeachment on charges of trying to sell the seat — not to tap one of the three African-American candidates considered among the leading contenders for the post.

That Chicago Sun-Times report, citing anonymous sources, said Reid called Blagojevich in early December to urge him to pass over state Senate President Emil Jones and Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Danny Davis — all African-American Democrats — with the clear implication that they would have difficulty winning a statewide election to retain the seat in 2010.

“It was very disturbing to me, being that [Reid] had just witnessed a man of color become president of the United States,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), a past CBC chairman, said, noting that two of three African-American Senators elected since Reconstruction hailed from Illinois. “What he was trying to say was that it was almost impossible for an African-American to be elected to the Senate from Illinois. If he’s smiling in our faces and saying those things behind our backs, I’m extremely disappointed.”

Reid denied the report the day after it came out, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Jan. 4 and insisting it was the result of a Blagojevich fabrication. Blagojevich has been defiant since his arrest late last year, not only in tapping Burris against the will of national and state Democratic leaders, but also in his refusal to step aside as governor.

“I didn’t tell him who not to appoint. He’s making all this up to divert attention,” Reid said.

Throughout the political firestorm over the appointment, the Nevada Democrat has vigorously argued he has no personal objection to Burris — rather, to Blagojevich, whose corruption scandal would taint anyone he picked.

“I’d be very, very careful listening to selective and one-sided leaks from Gov. Blagojevich or his staff,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.

The explanation was good enough for Clay, who on Monday said he talked to a source close to Reid and now accepts his version of the conversation. “I believe that he never said it, and so we will let that lie,” Clay said.

Nevertheless, CBC members discussed the report in their first closed-door session of the year last week, agreeing they want to air their grievances during an upcoming face-to-face meeting with Reid. Manley said Reid is “more than happy to meet with them and explain exactly what happened.”

On top of discussing the Burris appointment, Manley said Reid will “lay out agenda for the 111th Congress and to listen to their priorities.”

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said CBC members agreed during their session last week that they want to give Reid “an opportunity to explain himself.”

For the most part, CBC members have remained relatively reserved over the Burris imbroglio, waiting until last week’s meeting to vote to endorse installing Burris in the Senate and then making an argument for it on constitutional grounds in a letter to Reid.

But a notable exception from their ranks has come from Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.). A former Black Panther who beat back a primary challenge from Obama in 2000, Rush jumped into the fray at the Chicago press conference Blagojevich called on Dec. 30 to announce the appointment. Taking the stage at Burris’ request, Rush said it was of “tremendous national importance” that the former Illinois attorney general be allowed to replace Obama as the only African-American in the Senate. Rush warned detractors not to “hang or lynch” Burris for Blagojevich’s alleged wrongdoing.

The next day, he compared Reid and Senate Democratic leaders with George Wallace and Bull Connor — Southern Democrats who fought against integration in the 1960s. He went on to deride the Senate as “the last bastion of plantation politics.”

The sustained assault appeared to set Reid back on his heels. He mounted a defense during his appearance on “Meet the Press,” noting that he had worked “harder than anyone” to try to elect African-American Senate candidates from Texas and Tennessee. And he pointed out that Rush backed a white politician over Obama in the 2004 Senate primary.

Reid in that interview repeated his intention to block the seating of Burris, but his opposition melted away last week as the Illinois Democrat deftly maneuvered through media appearances and closed-door huddles with Senate Democratic leaders. The final hurdle seemingly cleared Monday after Burris’ attorneys presented Senate officials with the appropriate paperwork to certify the appointment, prompting Reid to declare that Burris would be sworn in by week’s end.